June 5

The USB Rant
Why isn't USB actually universal?

Crashy USB ruins yet another important Unreal Tournament session. Artwork by David Nagel

by David Nagel
Executive Producer

Up until now, USB hasn't bothered me. I had a keyboard and a MacAlly iSweet Net scrolling mouse, and everything worked great—except, of course, the actual keys on my stock keyboard, but that's not USB's fault. Now, however, I've added a couple of peripherals, and things aren't going so well anymore.

First of all, I had to buy a USB hub. I say "had to" because for some reason no peripheral manufacturer has had the decency to put a pass-through port on their devices, like in the old days of SCSI peripherals. Heaven forefend a manufacturer actually put an extra two cents worth of technology into their devices to make life a little easier on the user. Instead, I have to pay $40 for a four-port hub. And heaven forefend that a $40 USB hub should actually work right. Whatever the brand, USB hubs are garbage; yet you need one unless you want to disconnect one device to use another.

Second, don't even try plugging in a USB peripheral into your keyboard. I hooked up a joystick (also MacAlly) to my second keyboard port, and all of my applications quit without warning. All of them. I've heard lots of anecdotal evidence that this is true of other peripherals as well. I understand power consumption issues, and I understand that the Mac keyboard can only handle so much juice, but a joystick? Come on.

Thanks to reader Eusebio Mercado for supplying a link to what is supposed to be a universal USB driver, at least for joysticks, mice and trackballs. I haven't tried it out yet, but I will tonight. Go to http://www.usb overdrive.com to download your own copy.

Third, "plug and play" is just an outright lie. I don't know who made this one up. But just try swapping out some externally powered USB devices, and you're almost guaranteed to get a system crash. And another thing about plug and play: Doesn't the "U" in USB stand for "Universal?" So why doesn't my Mac come with a universal driver, one that at least can run a USB input device like a joystick without specific drivers? Buttons are buttons. Why do I need a specific driver to program the buttons on my input device? I'll give a big, wet kiss to the first person out there to write a universal USB driver so that I can hook up a driving wheel.

Fourth, converters: What's up with a $70 price tag to convert an old serial device to USB? I could retire in Mexico for that kind of bank. At home I'm still having to download images from my digital camera to my 7300 and then transfer them over to my G4 because I'm not willing to pay a 400,000 percent markup. As a side note to this, I did purchase a SanDisk SmartMedia reader at work, and the thing is great. Why it cost less than a cable adapter, I don't know. But it's well worth the $50 investment.

There are other problems with USB as well, especially when it comes to audio on the Mac, but I think I'll end my rant here. Let me know what problems you're having with USB, and we'll try to keep a running tally in the Creative Mac user forum. Apple's done a great job with this current generation of machines. It's just a shame to see the drop in quality on the serial bus. But maybe, if we make enough noise, we'll see a fix soon.

Post a message in the Creative Mac World Wide User Group.

Dave Nagel is the executive producer of Creative Mac. An eight-year veteran of the print publishing world, Nagel covered a broad range of topics in the areas of technology and marketing. As a Mac psychofanatic since 1987, he's finally landed his dream job: earning a living writing about his favorite topic. If you have something to say, please send a polite e-mail to [email protected]. (Let's not try to bring him down from his euphoria too soon.)

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